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President Bush to Push Israelis, Palestinians to Get Peace Negotiations Back on Track

  • Jim Teeple

Israel's prime minister and the Palestinian president held a final round of talks, Tuesday in a bid to smooth over differences before both men meet separately with President George Bush, this week, during his visit to Israel and the West Bank. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem that recent disagreements between Israelis and Palestinians have analysts saying there are diminished expectations for the visit.

There is a building boom going on in Jerusalem. Nowhere is that more evident than in Har Homa, a neighborhood of neat houses that sits on a steep hill overlooking the West Bank city, Bethlehem. Har Homa is in East Jerusalem and has been built on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. When Israel recently announced it was going to build 300 new homes in Har Homa, Palestinians reacted with anger. They say the construction is a violation of Israel's commitment made last year at the Annapolis, Maryland, Mideast peace conference to freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank.

But Israeli officials say Har Homa is part of Jerusalem, which they say is Israel's eternal capital. Those who live there agree. Ofer Tal says Har Homa is his home and, although he supports peace talks with Palestinians, he has no plans to move.

"I think Har Homa is part of Jerusalem, it is part of Israel. We can share the place with the Arabs, they can and live beside us, we do not care, but the area is open for everybody," he said.

President Bush will not visit Har Homa and, even though American officials recently raised the issue of Har Homa with Israeli officials, Mr. Bush is unlikely to press Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the matter. Instead, Mr. Bush has said he will focus on the issue of illegal outposts constructed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There are more than 100 such outposts and Mr. Olmert has pledged to dismantle some of them. Uri Dromi is a newspaper columnist and director of the Mishkenot Sha'ananim conference center in Jerusalem. He says even that limited objective could prove difficult for Mr. Olmert to achieve.

"There are already warnings from the right wing that, if things like this happen, they will put out of the government immediately. So it remains to be seen. This government has not tackled a serious issue up to now, and this is really a time of testing for this government," said Dromi.

When Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last met President Bush at the Annapolis Mideast peace conference, both men pledged to re-commit themselves to the peace process. Israel would stop settlement activity, and Mr. Abbas' security forces would crack down on militant activity in the West Bank.

However, since then, the two sides have grown farther apart, with Palestinians condemning Israel's continued West Bank settlement construction and Israeli officials voicing frustration and anger at continued militant activity in the West Bank and the continued firing of rockets at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Mahdi Abdel Hadi, who heads the Palestinian research group, PASSIA, says perhaps the best that Mr. Bush can hope for during his visit is to reassert the traditional role of the United States as honest broker between the two sides.

"Usually the accomplishment is not moving things forward or backward," he said. "The accomplishment is to reconfirm the American position on the need for a two-state solution, to reconfirm the American position on East Jerusalem as an occupied city, to reconfirm the American position that Israel should halt the settlements. If he (Bush) can do that, it will be an accomplishment by itself."

In a series of interviews given before he left for the Middle East, Mr. Bush hinted he will have a limited objective during his visit. Although he says he believes conditions are in his words "ripe for peace," he also said the peace process is difficult and that hard choices will be required from both sides, saying a lot of work will have to be done to implement the peace process.

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